Individual Solutions for a Universal Problem.

Blurred shot of a manual wheelchair moving towards the left of the camera down a corridor.

The one-size-fits-all approach to problem solving does have its benefits. It’s more efficient in terms of time and resources, and you can help a lot of people very quickly. Unfortunately, it does also have one significant pit-fall; this approach invariably excludes people.

Stairs present one of the biggest challenges to disabled people. Spotting this, a team of engineers came up with the solution of the century – a wheelchair capable of climbing stairs very, very slowly, backwards. It was billed as vanquishing the final barrier that exists in this universe for disabled people, except as any disabled person would have told them had they bothered to ask, it doesn’t solve anything. The extortionate price tag immediately takes 99% of customers out of the bidding, and the remaining 1% are soon put off by concerns around safety and functionality.

Of course, there are plenty of disabled people who struggle with stairs who don’t use wheelchairs, and this special wheelchair didn’t remove any barriers for them. Instead, we need more traditional solutions; alternatives to stairs. Ramps are great, but not all the time. Temporary ramps are often insecure, buckling underfoot, and depend upon others remembering to set them up. Even for permanent ramps if the height difference is too steep, either the ramp will be steeper than a mountain or it will need to be long and twisty, making it hard to use. For steeper gaps lifts are useful, but these are expensive and prone to technical difficulties. Little platforms lifts are cheaper but rarely work as they should, and probably cost more in repairs.

So you see, in trying to solve one, relatively simple problem for disabled people, applying a blanket solution to all staircases is implausible and exclusive.

This same principle applies to lots of other accessibility issues for disabled people. Take, for example, the multiple kinds of colour-blindness. One colour scheme could be beneficial to one group, but the colours may be indistinguishable for another. That’s why having different filters that can be applied to electronic screens is so important; each filter allows the user to choose what they need to be able to see clearly.

However, those coloured filters might cause issues for some dyslexic people, a condition which seems to have a connection with the contrast between letters and the page. For others with dyslexia, text font and size are more important, and this has a knock-on impact on how accessible information is for various visual impairments, or how useful subtitles are for those who need them.

Sound also needs modifying to accommodate those who struggle to hear. Loud, clear voices with no background noise is optimal but can be hard to achieve, especially in video conferences. However, being too loud or bright can be overwhelming for autistic individuals.

Just as in the office conflict can arise from people’s different working preferences (music/no music, thermostat wars, open plan/cubicles), the needs of one disabled person may, in fact, be disadvantageous to another. This is why the needs of disabled people are so individualised, particularly when multiple disabilities are involved. It’s true that, sometimes, compromise is needed.

When it comes to finding solutions, at no point should comparisons ever be drawn between two disabled individuals, even if they share a condition. What worked for person X may be useless to person Y and vice versa. Instead of making assumptions it’s best to check with the relevant people, although this should not be abused as an excuse to ask for personal and intrusive details unnecessarily. Sensible and understanding conversation is by far the most effective tool for coming up with solutions.

Essentially, what this all boils down to is that the one universal truth you can apply to all disabled people is that none of our needs are universal.

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